Neuston Virtuoso test and review

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Neuston Virtuoso MC-500

Sitting at a desk in front of a PC is no way to enjoy digital photos, MP3 music files and videos. It's far better to watch and listen to PC-based media while curled up on a couch in the living room. We check out Neuston's Virtuoso MC-500 - currently the only network media player compatible with Windows, Mac OSX and Linux PCs

Network media players allow video, stills and music held on a PC to be enjoyed on a home entertainment system in the living room via a wired or wireless network connection - doing away with the need to have a noisy, ugly PC in the room.
Our first taste of what this offers was from Pinnacle's £199 (inc VAT) ShowCenter - and we were impressed. However, the ShowCenter only plays back content from a PC running Windows XP/2000, whereas the media player we're looking at here - Neuston's Virtuoso MC-500 - is said to be compatible not only with XP/2000, but also with Win ME/98, Mac OSX and Linux/Unix.
As we went to press, the MC-500 was still not on sale in the UK, but the SRP looks set to be £249. However, Skunkworks, Neuston's Australian distributor, is able to supply to the UK for £189 all up (even including delivery).
The MC-500 is a stylish, lightweight, metallic-grey box about the size of a digital TV receiver, and doesn't look out of place on top of a TV set. It comes with a slim IR remote handset for accessing and playing back content or surfing the web.
Operational lights at the front of the MC-500 show power, an active Lan or wireless connection (10/100), and whether or not an active Lan cable is connected. At front left there's a PCMCIA card slot for a 802.11b 16-bit wireless network card, meaning that it's not possible to use the faster 802.11g 32-bit cards capable of delivering higher bit-rate video.
Given that the MC-500 works with Mac and Linux PCs, and - it's said - all flavours of Windows from 98 to XP, it's likely to appeal to a considerably wider range of users than Pinnacle's more limited Win XP/2K-only ShowCenter. We found processor usage on all NMC servers was low during playback and would expect the same to be true with Win 98/ME PCs, so the lower spec typical of such machines shouldn't be a problem.
We found it easy to understand the NMC software and navigation of the MC-500's menus, but were hindered by the rather unresponsive IR remote. Mac users will be pleased they'll be able to manage music and photos from the familiar surroundings of iTunes and iPhoto, and not have to learn another interface.
But users need to experiment to work out what video formats the MC-500 can handle, what encoding software to use and which give the best viewing quality. Neuston needs to help out here to make life easier and also needs to seriously address Linux setup issues - the fact that Linux users are typically very technically clued up is no excuse.
We'd also like to see the addition of support for WMV media and for fast 802.11g wireless cards able to handle video at higher bit-rates, along with the ability to watch video at resolutions greater than 720 x 576 pixels.
Clearly, the MC-500 isn't perfect but, nonetheless, we were delighted that it gave us access to PC-based digital media on three platforms from the comfort of the living room, and also that - with the right footage - the viewing experience was so good.

Lisa Keddie

Read the full review in September 2004's Computer Video magazine.


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Neuston Virtuoso MC-500
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